Jamal Shah’s inquisitorial, soul-searching paintings are saturated with symbols, allusions and questions
…there is freedom only in a situation, and there is a situation only through freedom.
Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre
amal Shah’s paintings are about themes so inquisitorial, soul-searching and heartbreaking, that it seems almost trite to describe his subject matter. His work inserts itself into the viewer’s consciousness through the way he seems to fumble towards an understanding of how he should respond to the world he lives in.
The return to painting reaffirms Shah’s belief in the permanence and intellectual nature of the medium, the sense that the painted image necessitates a singular, uncompromising confrontation between the viewer and the object. He has been almost unique in reinventing the paradigm of socialist painting. Consequently, his account of the imagery focuses attention on the notion that the combined images present a history of the working class – the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. Hence, the new body of paintings offers a memoir of the victory of British colonialism and reflects on the decline of working-class identity in confrontation with the right wing programmes.
It is clear that these paintings, titled Celebration of a Dehumanised Existence, on show at Clifton Art Gallery, Karachi, are a response to a particular set of historical circumstances. This helps explain both the polemics and the urgency of the imagery.
In the first instance, Shah has saturated the pictures with symbols, allusions and questions. There are the recurring emblems of working-class struggle: the spade and the axe, the monkeys and labour cast as a murgha – a stress position used as a corporal punishment. The punished assume the position of a rooster, by squatting and then looping the arms behind the knees and firmly holding the ears. Shah’s images conjure the hysteria and savagery of this act, complete with the persecution of intellectuals. It is, however, notably dehistoricised. Where previously, Shah would have set out markers in order to notate the specific historical moment of these actions, he now strips the event of an explicit time and locale. In essence, he begins to speculate on the common nature of these events, the idea that this corruption can become a feature of all societies where ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’.
There is the paraphernalia of a complex and contradictory culture, the spectre of sectarianism, the omnipresent bars of the cage surrounding the figures. Beyond this, it is possible to identify a concern with oral history and tradition; and a concern with art, culture and theory. Indeed, the key to these images lies almost certainly in the text by Antonio Gramsci, which reflects on the potential of culture as a weapon in political struggle. All of this yields the appearance of an unmediated and straightforward ‘social realism’. A didactic and polemical art resisting the degeneration of working-class life.
The paintings are not simply tight and rhythmic – they are dense, fevered, energised to the point of explosion. The images are restless and offer no relief for the eye; they constantly turn and wheel and spin. Simultaneously, they are visceral and dark. The palette is unrestrained, from deep vermilion to sparkling red, from burnt umber to ochres. Here, then, two visions come into conflict: the excitement and energy of a radical political discourse and an underlying darkness or pessimism. Shah, it seems, is acutely aware of the need for a socially responsible art and equally sceptical of its viability and potential.
The mass of men in Shah’s oeuvre enacts a ritual of persecution and supplication, of torment and despair. This sense of a populace that has been bruised and humiliated has become a familiar aspect of the artist’s lexicon of images. In essence, then, and far from an unmediated misanthropy, Shah is analysing the post-modern condition – a world without value, without authentic intellectual debate, robbed of meaning and sense. His figures stoop still, helplessly, in a torpor of indifference and casual brutality. These are quite literally hollow men; and the roots of their anomie are social.
Shah has progressed from a painter who questioned and challenged, to an artist who reflects on the fundamental character of existence. But this reflection is never ‘disengaged’, it is a means to encourage debate on the nature and value of human life itself.
Clearly, then, Shah’s work remains political and critical, but its means have grown. The European tradition of the grotesque has, perhaps, provided a method for this approach because it allows for a dialogue between the horror of vision and the absurdity of the situation. Significantly, then, it is a terrifying drama that has moved beyond Brecht and now makes its appeal to Beckett. Shah equates the breakdown in rational thought, in logical and coherent social policy, in the contest of ideas and intellectual debate that people, society and individuals, are damaged by a debilitating post-modern malaise.
The figures take their cue from an earlier installation titled Situations 101, created for the Karachi Biennale 2017, and later re-installed beside the courtyard of the PNCA, Islamabad, that conflated the human figure with social realism as public art. The recent paintings suggest parallels between objective and subjective modes of propaganda, meditating on the repression of the concepts of self and consciousness under authoritarian regimes. Situations, (as the corpus of paintings had been titled earlier) carries a broader, subtler message as it strives to describe the displacement of a sense of self produced by psychic injury in general. Here, the figures are mere emblems for the morphing soul, modelled and ‘draped’ around the negative psychic space where all that has been maimed, neglected and destroyed, persists invisibly. By the same token, however, Shah feels his way towards a poetics of fragments.
The actors in Shah’s tableau do not thrust their arms in expansive gestures. They stand there like orators who have lost their notes or soldiers who have laid down their weapons but can never lower their hands. The posture they assume leads away from the immediate scene, pointing beyond the observable all the way to the edges of identity.
The river of images presented throughout details an astonishing and torrid journey: the wild currents of social change, the undertow of philosophical crisis, the eddies of intellectual revision, the calm glides of aesthetic re-evaluation. In all this, we see an artist constantly at war with the challenges and disputes of the maelstrom of forces – social, cultural, political – that surround him. At each moment, he has gathered resources that allow him to accept the challenge and chart a meaningful course through the hazardous waters.
These paintings, rhetorical and polemic, chime with a pre-eminent zeitgeist as the old certainties collapse. In some ways they are elegiac. They reflect upon a real history – defiant, celebratory and politically resonant. One is reminded of an article written by Benedict Anderson – the story of a Colonel Abdul Latief, the ‘Gus Dul’ of the title, who fought in the Indonesian Independence Movement. During his arrest, he was severely wounded and the authorities subsequently interred his entire body in a gypsum cast. He remained in this condition throughout interrogation and imprisonment, a situation that caused his wounds to become gangrenous and maggot-ridden. Gus Dul was to survive this unbelievable experience and went on to indict the regime. Anderson describes his survival as an example of ‘miraculous fortitude’. In painting, Shah looks to give his figures a sense of serenity, and yet expose the terrifying immediacy of their plight. These figures are incarcerated, impotent, defenceless and suffering an infinite agony. They come to symbolise the resistance of common humanity to every level of oppression and terror.
The development that is witnessed in these paintings is epic in its scope and depth. Shah has progressed from a painter who questioned and challenged, to an artist who reflects on the fundamental character of existence. But this reflection is never ‘disengaged’, it is a means to encourage debate on the nature and value of human life. In all this, and despite the seeming nihilism of the paintings, it is the inviolable sense of resolve and resistance that underpins the images. These are paintings that discreetly celebrate the courage and the spirit of those least privileged and those abandoned of hope. Consequently, the awesome terror of these images metamorphoses into the sublime and the sublime melts into a sense of wonder.
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad